Time Out’s Executive Editor Michael Hodges isn’t satisfied with just a 1001 things to do in London, he wants to tell you what you should specifically avoid. This week: No. 347 – Don’t shop for tanks in an embassy.
Steve is trying to sell me weapons. A big, ruddy-faced man in a double-breasted suit, he has pushed women and waiters out of the way to reach me and now laughs as he lists the things he can furnish: ‘Forward support base facilities, crowd control equipment, general security apparatus, small arms, bigger arms, ammunition.’ I laugh along nervously, unsure how we got to this point. I pass Steve a plate of stuffed vine leaves over the head of a short, portly man in the military uniform of a foreign power; in response Steve suggests ‘more advanced mobile armoured options’.
‘“Advanced mobile armoured options”?’
Usually this doesn’t happen but I am wearing a suit and, perhaps, look shifty enough to buy tanks. We’re at a function in a huge Georgian pile on one of the West End’s most expensive streets, the guests of the ambassador of a large country to the east of Italy. I’ve come here out of interest; Steve has come here for business reasons. The large country has suffered a very difficult few years: its towns shelled, its citizens shot at and its borders threatened, and could very possibly go to war soon.
But tonight it is maintaining its grand peacetime style. The rooms are taller than the house I live in; the walls are covered in ancient silk paper, and giant chandeliers of even older origin hang from the ceiling 20 feet above our heads. The goalmouth-sized French windows are draped with yards of brocade curtain, and a broad and grandiose doorway opens into a further sumptuous salon. This in turn leads to another in an apparently unending circle of grand spaces, all of which are packed with people who’ve apparently had nothing to eat or drink for days.
A wild mêlée is going on around tables piled high with the dainty sweetmeats that are characteristic of the country’s cuisine. Forcing their way through the scrum, scores of waiters are distributing gallons of the country’s red and white wines. There is enough food and drink here to feed a small army –which is appropriate, as there areenough soldiers here to form a small army. One of them, the short, portly man in the military uniform of a foreign power, is now wedged against my left thigh. He wants to get to the mound of stuffed vine leaves and is pushing at me in the hope I’ll get sick of being pushed and move. But I can’t move without knocking the woman with dyed black hair next to me. So I reach past the woman, take the vine leaves and hold them near the portly officer, who immediately forces as many into his mouth as he can before moving off in search of more delicacies.
I turn to Steve. ‘This tank, Steve,’ I venture, ‘is it new?’ Steve stops laughing. ‘Of course not: I’m a used-arms salesman.’ It’s a basic mistake, and now Steve is wondering if I’m a suitable conversation partner after all.
‘What is it you actually do, Michael?’ he asks.
‘I’m a journalist.’ Steve steps back, or would if he could.
‘What area of journalism?’
‘The arts, I suppose.’ Steve relaxes. ‘Ah, culture. No need for tanks in that business.’
‘Not as yet, Steve.’
‘Well, it really was nice meeting you,’ he says. ‘A very interesting talk.’ I’ve not actually said anything. ‘Yes, very interesting,’ he repeats. ‘We must talk again. That would be marvellous.’ Steve moves on, forcing people out of the way while smiling at them and continuing to say ‘marvellous’. He has left no number if I did want to speak to him again.
Later, on the way out, I catch a glimpse of Steve. He is holding a plate of sweetmeats and talking to the portly foreign officer. ‘Yah, forward support base facilities, security apparatus and other more advanced mobile armoured options.’ The portly foreign officer’s eyes are focused entirely on the plate, his small frame ready to spring.